‘A ghost town’: Camp Hill reeling after devastating storm, mass shooting
Twin tragedies have small Tallapoosa County town reeling
Tywanda Greer stands in the bedroom of her hail damaged home, Monday, April 24, 2023, in Camp Hill, Ala. After hail left holes in her roof and rain poured in, mold started to grow in the ceiling. The ceiling was recently removed to mitigate the mold issue. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)
Everyone in Camp Hill remembers the night the hail fell.
Rosalie Bundy remembers the sound of rocks hitting her house. She was in bed on the night of March 26 when she heard the banging all over her house. She wasn’t sure what was going on. The only thing outside her house was her rocking chair.
Josh Darling, chief of the town’s volunteer fire department, had driven an ambulance out of town when dispatch alerted him around 3 a.m. to a storm hitting Camp Hill. They told him to stay where he was.
Darling called back a few minutes later, thinking they had forgotten him. They hadn’t. Stay where you are, dispatch said.
About a half-hour later, they told him to return.
His partner called at around 3:30 a.m. It was “bad.” She mentioned the fire station.
“What do you mean like, a hail storm just came through and all you’re telling me is ‘It’s bad?’ It’s the station,” he said.
It was a powerful hail storm. The National Weather Service in Birmingham said the hail that struck Camp Hill was two inches in size. That’s roughly equal to a hen egg. Jason Holmes, a meterologist at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, said only 15% of reported hail storms between 2005 and 2022 featured hail larger than a golf ball.
The storm didn’t stop there. Torrential rain followed. The town flooded.
County engineers tried to stop a man from driving through roads during the rainstorm, but he thought he could make it through, Darling said. Water rose around the man’s car, flowing around it at five or seven miles an hour. The man tried to turn the wheel and drove the car off the road into some bushes where it got wedged.
Darling and his team had to perform a water rescue for a man trapped in his car. It’s not something the tiny volunteer fire team is trained for.
“So, by the time we got there, we’re already 30 minutes behind the 8 ball,” he said. “Could we have just walked out there, opened his door and broke his window, whatever and said ‘Come on?” 30 minutes sooner? Absolutely. But by the time we got there, half the car was underwater.”
The volunteers were able to break the window, but the water kept rising. Darling, holding onto a teammate’s safety line without a harness, went into the water. He lifted his teammate onto the trunk of the car. His teammate broke the rest of the window and pulled the man from the car.
“Like, when you go back and you tell the story, I make it sound like ‘Oh, it was nothing, we do it everyday, you know like that’s what we trained to do,’” he said. “But that’s not what we trained to do.”
Darling said that was when he realized how bad things were for the town.
“The roads are washed away,” he said.
Three weeks later, at a party attended by many Camp Hill teenagers, gunfire erupted.
‘It was a disaster’
Camp Hill, a town of 1,000 people in Tallapoosa County, about 20 miles north of Auburn, was struggling long before the twin tragedies. Its median household income is $29,000 a year, compared to $54,000 statewide. The town, which is about 87% Black, has lost nearly half its population in the last 40 years.
Karen Shelley, who grew up in Camp Hill, told a brief history of the town in her living room. There was a light hanging from the ceiling behind her in the kitchen, but she was afraid to turn it on; the storm left water damage in that part of the ceiling. Out front, her husband’s truck has a shattered windshield from where the hail hit it that night.
She can remember when the town had a busy Main Street. There were three grocery stores and a bank.
“I miss Camp Hill like it used to be,” she said.
The storm and the shootings have left the town reeling. More than a month later, the damage from the hail is still visible. Walking around town, you can feel the divots in the earth through your shoes. Cars drive around town with shattered windshields. Tarps cover the roofs of houses. There are holes in roof gutters.
The shootings in Dadeville damaged the town still further. On a recent Monday, Darling was the only person staffing a recovery from the storm. Many people were out, attending the funeral of Phil Dowdell, a Dadeville High School football player killed in the shooting.
“There’s nobody else coming to volunteer,” he said. “This community. What little bit of life they had in them was just taken away. It’s a ghost town.”
The twin tragedies have passed with almost no notice from state officials or the media. So far, emergency aid for the storm has not been forthcoming.
Gina Maiola, communications director for Gov. Kay Ivey, said Monday that Ivey signed a state of emergency declaration that helps the disaster assistance process.
Jason Moran, director of the Tallapoosa County Emergency Management Agency, said the town has not received a disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would allow funds to help Camp Hill residents repair their homes.
In the absence of help, Camp Hill residents are enduring as best they can.
Tywanda Greer wasn’t home when the storm hit because she was working overnight an automotive supplier. But when she returned to her single-wide mobile home, much of the roof was gone. Insulation hung down in pink clumps. The green carpet had planks of wood across some areas, but the entire home was accessible.
Drawings and school documents lined the walls.
Inside, there was extensive water damage. Rain had poured into her house and flooded everything.
Her kids were moved out of their rooms, and they all had to wear their sneakers in the home.
“It was a disaster,” she said.
Rising temperatures in the last couple of weeks, coupled with the water damage, have created an additional problem: mold. Her house was the worst, he said.
“That whole ceiling looked like mushrooms growing on your ceiling,” Darling said. “It was bad.”
Greer said she had lived there all of her life.
“I never experienced anything like this before,” she said. “This is my first time. We usually just have tornado storms and it’ll go away.”
In the wake of the storm, Camp Hill residents started recovery efforts.
They took over the town hall, an old Baptist church. A screen in the back showed a map of the town with color coded markers for different sites. The volunteers tried to get people health care. Food donations — boxes of chili con carne, green beans, tomato soup, condensed cream of chicken soup and macaroni and cheese — came in. The team developed a case management system. They even established a low-frequency radio station to provide updates to people in the town.
Getting tarps on the damaged roofs was the most pressing need. They started with a single crew, and then got to two, working on 500 houses. Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization led by military veterans, also helped out. Three weeks after the storm, Darling said they had all but 40 homes covered.
But the lack of aid had consequences. With more help, Darling said, “tarps would be done by now.”
“We’d be on to the second or third phase,” he said. “But we’re not. We’re still tarping roofs. So then it started getting warmer and that’s when you start hearing about the mold.”
Then came the shooting.
The night of April 15, a girl from Camp Hill celebrated her Sweet 16 party at a dance studio in Dadeville, about eight miles up Highway 280. Gunfire erupted at the party, killing at least four people and leaving 32 injured.
Darling first heard the news of the shooting over the radio; some gunshots came over the broadcast.
Darling and his teammate got another ambulance and arrived at the scene.
They were among the first people at the scene. And they soon realized the shooting involved children.
“And that’s when the whole game changed,” he said.
The two and a half minutes felt far longer, Darling said. He can remember every scent, sound and color that he experienced in those few minutes.
He doesn’t say more than that. It was too gruesome, Darling said, and too many people had been hurt.
“If I painted the picture the right way, and you put my words on the paper, and you read it, you could put yourself standing there,” he said. “And, you can see what, you know, what I’m saying? I can give you in detail down to the color of the boxers my guy was wearing, where he was laying, what his name was, like, in detail. There’s no point in doing that.”
That night of the shooting, a father went looking for his daughter in the hospital and spoke to Darling, who has a 12-year-old son.
“I couldn’t fathom what he felt in that moment when I said ‘She’s not here,’” he said.
He later learned the girl had been taken to another hospital.
During a recent interview, He pulled out his phone and scrolled through text updates on the girl.
“I found her,” he said. “I know where she was. I now know every day, almost to the 24-hour mark, everything about this little girl.”
‘It’s tearing me apart’
The shooting devastated the Camp Hill community, said Warren Tidwell, who volunteers as a community resilience coordinator for Camp Hill.
“Everybody’s talking about Dadeville and the shooting and Dadeville is where the shooting occurred and as they should, but all of our kids go to Dadeville High School,” he said. “That party was for a Camp Hill family.”
Latoya Ware has felt both tragedies.
The hail destroyed her roof and pierced her bathtub. It wrecked her four cars — a Pontiac G6 GT, Ford Mustang, 2011 Chevy Impala, 2012 Ford Taurus. Without insurance, she can’t get them repaired.
Without a car, she needed her mother to drive her to the Baptist Medical Center in Montgomery on the night of April 15, so she could see her son, who was lying paralyzed with two bullet wounds. One grazed his side. Another went through his lung and liver and out his back.
“It’s a lot going on right now,” she said quietly over the phone.
Her son is a month from graduating high school. He focuses on school and likes football. He plans to attend Southern Union Community College and then Jacksonville State University, where Phil Dowdell had committed to play.
He always tells Ware he loves her.
“He will graduate,” she said. “Whether it’s walking across that stage or in a wheelchair. He’s going to graduate.”
Ware has not left the hospital since she arrived. They were scheduled to go to Birmingham for further treatment for Wednesday.
“Life is just throwing baseballs at me,” she said. “And it’s just tearing me apart and if it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
Camp Hill volunteers have organized a fundraiser for the town. You can contribute here.
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